One Happy Family| October 10, 2019
"They’re these four girls who grew up together, and I’m the only sister-in-law, the only one who comes from a different house"
Shira: If we’re part of the family, why do you keep excluding us?
Brachi: Why do you constantly make us feel inferior just for being ourselves?
As soon as my husband said the words Succos plans, my muscles tensed. I knew the ritual already: Succos at my in-laws was a sacred time. My parents made aliyah soon after we got married, and we spend Pesach with them most years. So every Succos, we join Yoni’s parents — which means an entire week with my four sisters-in-law.
“I don’t understand why you don’t get along with my sisters,” he complained once. “They’re so harmless. They don’t mean anything bad!”
“It’s not what they mean that’s the problem.” Chani, Brachi, Blumy, Faigy — they look alike, they talk alike, they even think alike. That’s where the problems start.
“I hate sitting there feeling like the odd one out all the time,” I tried explaining to Yoni. “You know, they’re these four girls who grew up together, and I’m the only sister-in-law, the only one who comes from a different house. They have all these private jokes, and they’re always getting together with their kids. All the cousins are practically siblings, and then ours are left out.”
“So we can initiate sometimes, invite them over, things like that,” he said. “Or we could just join them when they get together.”
“When we’re invited,” I retorted. Then I felt bad. “Whatever, it’s one week, I’ll deal with it.”
Yoni looked relieved. He never understood the problem I had with his sisters, preferring to pretend that everyone got along fine. And it wasn’t like we fought or anything. It was just that they were in their own little world, sisters only, and outsiders simply didn’t belong.
I thought of Yoni’s advice when I booked tickets to the Chol Hamoed circus. Time was rushing by; if we didn’t book fast, the early-bird tickets would be sold out. I reserved six seats and then wondered if I should have offered to book for my sisters-in-law and their families, also.
I posted a message on the Friedman Siblings chat: Hey, anyone want to join us at the circus, first day Chol Hamoed? Early bird tickets still open.
I watched the two gray ticks appear — so everyone had received my message. But there was no response. It was oddly quiet for the 200-messages-per-hour chat.
After a couple of hours, Brachi sent a tepid Hmm, not making plans yet. Then Chani wrote, lol I haven’t even planned Rosh Hashanah yet — where’s everyone holding with menus? Any new ideas?
Of course, the group sprang into action instantly. Blumy and Faigy were typing… within seconds.
I swallowed, and shut down WhatsApp.
And Yoni would probably say I was overreacting again.
The family chat was quiet for a couple of days after that. Probably everyone getting busy for Yom Tov, after posting elaborate menus I was sure they wouldn’t end up producing. Not that I was bored, although my Rosh Hashanah meals were all cooked and waiting in the freezer — I’d offered my mother-in-law to make some side dishes for Succos, so I was elbow-deep in potatoes and mushrooms and liver blintzes.
I slid a pan of vegetable kugel in the oven just as my phone pinged. Chani: Hey all, I’m going to Kids Boutique soon, wanna come? Almost instantaneously, Blumy replied in the affirmative, followed by a panicked Omigosh, haven’t even thought about kids outfits yet!!! from Brachi. I hovered over the reply key but then decided against responding. Why should I tell them that all I needed were a few pairs of tights? I had already done the Succos shopping during summer vacation.
There were a few more messages about time and meeting place, then the chat went quiet. I typed a brief Good luck with the shopping, then deleted it. It would look too wannabe, trying to join a conversation that they probably hardly remembered I was part of. Although goodness knows they needed good luck, trying to shop a few days before Rosh Hashanah. The racks would be empty by now.
We arrived early on Erev Yom Tov, after I gave my kids a filling lunch and gave my kitchen a final wipe down. After greeting my mother-in-law, I made my way upstairs to hang up the Yom Tov clothing. Within minutes I was at work in the kitchen, helping my mother-in-law with the last-minute cooking, while the kids played in Bubby’s playroom, enjoying having the large toy collection to themselves until the cousins arrived.
Faigy turned up first, a couple of hours before lighting. Her Little Esti (Brachi’s was Big Esti) danced in, Shuey close behind.
“Hi, Ma, how’s it going?” she asked breezily. “Oh, hi, Shira. What are you doing? Ooh, that smells so good!” She dug around for a spoon, and asked a quick, “Okay with you?” before sampling some chicken soup. “I’m starving! We haven’t eaten anything today, it’s been manic. Can I give the kids some?”
Ma looked flustered; we’d just cleaned the kitchen. Faigy was oblivious, setting up her little ones at the table with bowls and spoons, chattering all the while. Of course, Blumy turned up a few minutes later, sneaked a few schnitzels, and a trail of crumbs followed her to the table.
“You didn’t have lunch before?” I couldn’t help but ask Blumy. She shrugged. “Aww, you know how it goes.”
Then she was dashing over to her twins, who were having a competition over who could eat faster, with predictable results on the tablecloth. I escaped to change for Yom Tov, taking my kids upstairs as well. I’d had enough of the disaster zone.
It’s hard work keeping the kids’ outfits spotless for more than a half hour. When I lit candles, they were sitting on the floor playing quietly. I hoped it would last.
I was the first to light, Ma coming in just as I sat down on the armchair. Upstairs, my sisters-in-law rushed around with their kids, scrambling to make it before the zeman. I smoothed down my pleated skirt, glad I was losing the baby weight.
“Avigail,” I called, “do you want to go through your Succos project with me?”
Chani rushed in to light, followed by Blumy. Faigy followed, her little one in her arms. All three of them were wearing Shabbos robes. I glanced down at my blouse and skirt, self-conscious. Maybe they’d change after lighting.
At least their kids were all dressed. Chani’s girls were wearing cute green dresses with large chiffon bows at the back — I wondered when they’d bought them and how much they had cost. My girls were in burnt-orange suede, with black trim, and the two boys had matching sweaters. We’d taken professional pictures in the outfits already in time for Rosh Hashanah — the Shanah Tovah cards came out adorable — and I loved the matching hair accessories I’d found for Avigail and Racheli.
“Your kids look adorable,” Chani complimented me, settling down on the couch to feed her baby. Her boys looked like they were wearing last year’s shirts — the sleeves were a little scuffed.
“I like the dresses you bought,” I said, motioning at Leah and Suri. “Recent purchase?”
She shrugged. “Yeah, we went the other week. The others are matching, at least it’s cute like that.”
That’s when I noticed that Brachi’s girls were wearing the same dresses. And when Blumy’s little twins came in, prancing around in their forest-green finery, I felt a pang. My children, in their burnt-orange and black, couldn’t have looked more out of place.
Faigy came back, having settled her youngest, and squeezed onto the couch with Chani. “It’s so fun, playing matching with the cousins,” she said with a giggle. “My Esti was so excited that they all had the same dresses!”
A pack of little girls in green scampered out the room. “Ready or not, here I come!” shrieked Chani’s Leah, the oldest of the cousins. I started to smile at their energy, but then I noticed Avigail, sitting on the floor still with her siblings. She was staring after them, a funny expression on her face.
As soon as we herded the family into the car bright and early on Chol Hamoed morning, I breathed a sigh of relief. Two whole days with the sisters-in-law had been too much for me. I’d asked them all again if they wanted to come, but the truth was it was nice to be on our own. They’d never have been ready early enough, anyway.
“Who’s excited for the circus?” I asked. A chorus of “Me!”s answered from the back of the car. I leaned back into the seat, smiling.
“Worth booking in advance,” I said to Yoni, satisfied. He nodded, a little amused. This planning-in-advance thing wasn’t his nature, but after seven years of marriage, he was used to it.
The circus was fantastic, and I couldn’t help but wonder what my sisters-in-law ended up doing with their day. When I mentioned it to Yoni over lunch, he laughed and said they probably hadn’t left the house yet. When we’d left at a quarter to nine, they were all still sleeping, so I assumed he was right.
We got back at six, happy but tired, and I was looking forward to feeding the kids supper, giving them baths, and putting them to sleep. For that matter, I was looking forward to going to sleep myself.
My in-laws’ house was far too quiet.
“Where’s everyone?” I asked Yoni.
He shrugged. “I have no idea.”
I prepared some scrambled eggs and toast for the kids, cut up a quick salad, and debated texting Ma. Had she gone along with one of my sisters-in-law?
My kids were nearly asleep when the door opened, and a gaggle of grandchildren tumbled in, talking and laughing at the tops of their voices. I hurriedly closed the door of my kids’ room and headed downstairs. “Where’d you go?” I asked Brachi curiously.
“Oh, we went to the park in the end,” she said. “It was cute, we made a barbecue for supper.” Then she added, “How was the circus?”
“Amazing,” I told her, but there was a sour taste in my mouth. My mother-in-law was laughing over something Faigy’s husband said, and they all looked so happy and content together.
Had anyone even missed us? Couldn’t they have let us know about the barbecue so that we could join for supper? Or even better, couldn’t they have been more organized when I asked them to join the circus plans way back in September?
I went back upstairs to check on the children. Avigail was sitting up in bed.
“Mommy,” she whispered, her eyes sad. “Next year, can we do the same thing as the cousins instead of going to a circus?”
If I could tell Brachi one thing, it would be:
Yom Tov is about family, and we’re part of your family too. Don’t you realize how much it hurts when you exclude us from your plans?
Shira’s just different from the rest of us Friedmans.
I was on the phone with Faigy, pulling off an all-night cooking marathon the night before Rosh Hashanah. Chani was probably doing the same with Blumy; we all cook better that way.
“Shira’s probably all done by now, no?” Faigy asked. I could hear a blender whirring in the background.
“Are you kidding me? Shira’s probably started Pesach cleaning.”
We laughed. I cracked an egg over a glass. “But so what?”
“I was just thinking about the Chol Hamoed circus thing, she booked tickets, right?”
“I don’t know who has time to plan Chol Hamoed a month in advance. Seriously.”
“I felt bad, also.” Faigy’s voice dropped, a clear indication that she wanted to share. “I mean, you know how tight money is by Blumy, being out of a job and everything. She really can’t afford to do these crazy expensive trips.”
I nodded into the phone. “Yeah, you’re right. I mean, for us it’s not money, it’s just that I’m nowhere near up to planning Chol Hamoed yet.”
“Me neither,” Faigy agreed, confidences over. “D’ya think I’ll have time to make round challos tomorrow? I’m really hoping to.”
“You can have some of mine, I’m doing them tonight.”
“You’re a doll.”
I started to measure out flour. “Or crazy. I haven’t started the mains yet.”
“Crazy,” she agreed.
My phone beeped; it was Chani. I said goodbye to Faigy, wished her luck with her salmon, and clicked into Chani’s call. Maybe we were all nuts, but at least we were in it together.
Once the Yom Tov season starts, it flies. It felt like just a day or two ago that I was busy with Rosh Hashanah prep, and here it was the night before Succos. I threw another load of laundry in the washing machine and reminded Baila to brush her teeth. Packing for six was going to be a huge headache.
“Brach?” Gershon peered into the laundry room. “Slight problem here.”
I shoved a pile of undershirts to one side and clambered over the baskets to him. “What?”
“Remember in the summer, the zippers of two of our suitcases broke?”
I passed a hand over my eyes. “Gosh, I totally forgot about that, wow. So how many do we have left?”
“Two, one of them I think the wheels are a bit broken.”
“You know what? I’ll drive over to my parents’, they have so many, we can borrow a couple.”
Gershon brightened. “Great idea.”
“Baila — bedtime!” I called as I left, escaping the laundry thankfully. Going out for a few minutes was a treat.
Ma’s house smelled of Yom Tov. I sniffed and exhaled with a sigh. “Ma, it smells amazing in here. We’re so excited to come tomorrow!”
“I hope it’s not just for the food.” My mother laughed. She had a cake in the oven, and there were splatters of chocolate batter on the counter, next to neat piles of foil containers. I looked over them — kugel, rice, potatoes, blintzes-mushroom/liver.
“Wow, you’re organized.”
Ma snorted. “You think that’s mine? Shira just dropped them off. She offered to make the sides for Yom Tov, saved me so much work.”
I felt a bit guilty; Ma works so hard, and none of us girls did anything. I tried to think what I could pull together overnight. “You want me to bring a dessert or something?”
Ma laughed again. “Oh, you’re so sweet, Brachi, but I’m fine. I love cooking for the family, it’s my privilege, and besides, Shira helped me out a ton. I’m really okay with everything.”
I thanked her for the suitcases and sampled a piece of chocolate cake before I left, wondering if my sisters knew that Shira cooked half of Yom Tov. And wondering why the perfectly labeled, matching foil pans made me feel so uncomfortable inside.
By the time the second afternoon of Yom Tov rolls around, everyone’s a mess. Eli was on his last clean shirt and I didn’t even want to know what the baby looked like. The kids were all outside having a blast in their bubby’s garden, and the adults were having some quiet time for a change.
“So, what happened with your job interview in the end?” Chani asked Blumy. I leaned forward; we’d all heard about this position Blumy was hoping to get. It was graphic design — her field — in a large company, great location, good hours, room for growth.
“Oh, I think it was good! I guess I’ll hear from them sometime soon,” Blumy gushed.
Faigy smiled. “I’m sure it was good — your portfolio is amazing.”
“The one you sent us? Yeah, it’s good stuff,” Chani confirmed.
Shira was on the armchair, reading a magazine. She looked up a moment. “Wait, you left your old job?”
“Yeah.” Blumy looked a little embarrassed. Her boss had been the rigid sort, and ever since Michal was born, she’d struggled with the hours. We all knew about it, and encouraged her to look for a job that was more accommodating to young mothers. It was strange that Shira hadn’t heard about it.
Or maybe not. Shira worked in some accounting firm, full-time, and Yoni mentioned some sort of promotion. She wasn’t the type to get fired over coming late to work.
Chani changed the subject, and at some point Shira went out to check on the kids. Ma came and sat on the vacant armchair, watching us with a small smile.
“Ma’s shepping nachas from her girls.” Faigy laughed.
“The grandchildren, too,” Chani said with a glance out the window. “They’re having so much fun.”
“Yes, they really are.” Ma smiled fondly, then frowned. “It’s just a shame that Yoni and Shira’s kids are always sitting off to the side. Maybe ask the older girls to make sure they’re included?”
Chani was startled. “But Ma, they’re always playing together. I’m sure they’d let Avigail and Moishy join in if they wanted. I mean, Racheli and the baby are a little young, but…”
Blumy spoke up. “Maybe it’s Shira’s children who don’t want to join.”
My Esti wandered in just then, all grubby hands and popsicle-sticky mouth. “Mommy, we’re hungry! Can we have candy?”
“Just a second, Est.” I pulled her over. “What are you playing outside?”
Her eyes danced. “We were playing on the slide, and then we had races and now we’re playing hide and seek, the whole garden and the house is allowed!”
“That’s fun! Are Avigail and Moishy playing with you?”
She shook her head, curls flying wildly around her face. “No, they said their mommy doesn’t like them to get dirty.”
“Okay. Come, I’ll get you candy to share with everyone.”
On my way out the room, I gave Ma a significant look. She shrugged and nodded.
So it wasn’t our problem that Shira’s kids weren’t included, was it?
It was nearly midnight on Motzaei First Days when someone brought up the subject of Chol Hamoed trips.
“Chol Hamoed trips!” Faigy moaned theatrically. “My kids aren’t even sleeping yet!”
Chani rocked her baby absentmindedly. “And Shaya here didn’t let me sleep at all last night. I’m not going to be functioning if it happens again.”
Shira sipped her tea daintily. Her kids were all sleeping soundly, probably with their clothes laid out for tomorrow.
“We’re going to the circus,” she offered. “Maybe some of you can still join?”
“My kids are too young, I’m not spending the money,” Blumy said, shrugging. Blumy’s twins were only just three, but to be honest, Shira’s brood wasn’t that much older. Then again, Shira had a good job and Blumy was probably watching every penny. Chani suggested the zoo, and Faigy laughed and said the park would do her kids just fine. “We can hold off on the major attractions until they’re teens,” she declared.
Thinking of Blumy and the panicked look that had flashed over her face, I agreed.
“None of you are interested in the circus?” Shira said again. “It’s supposed to be amazing, elephant shows and acrobats and stuff… the older kids will love it.”
Gershon looked at me. “We could call up, find out about tickets,” he said.
“I’m fine with the park,” Blumy told Faigy. “There’s a succah there, right? We could eat lunch there.”
“Yes — make it a barbecue,” Faigy added.
Gershon leaned over. “Any preferences where we’ll go? Should we see if there are still tickets available for the circus?”
I made sure not to look at Blumy, but her face loomed in my mind’s eye. “Let’s see in the morning,” I said. “I’m too tired for this.”
“So nice that you plan everything in advance,” Chani said to Shira. “Maybe we’ll learn from you for next time.” She checked her baby; he was finally asleep. “I’m gonna get out of here, guys. Sleep while the baby sleeps and all that.”
That reminded us all of the time. Faigy and Blumy headed upstairs, still deep in conversation. I looked over at Shira and Yoni. “Well, good night, then. Enjoy the circus.”
“You, too, whatever you end up doing,” Shira said. “I’m sure it’ll end up fun.”
Why did she sound so patronizing?
When I came downstairs in the morning, Blumy was sitting at the kitchen table, pouring out cereal and milk. My Devoiry had a half-finished bowl in front of her. “Ooh, thanks, Blumy.”
She smiled. “No problem. I was up anyway, may as well let you guys sleep in. That’s what sisters are for.”
I pulled up a chair. “So, what’s the plans today?”
She shrugged. “We were thinking the park, but no one’s up yet. Let’s wait and see.”
By the time everyone — adults, kids, babies — had appeared, it was nearing midday.
“Too late for the zoo, I think,” Chani sighed. “Maybe tomorrow.”
“Come to the park with us,” Faigy offered. Her kids were dancing underfoot.
“Park, park!” Chani’s Chezky repeated eagerly. She laughed.
“I guess we’re in, but let’s have lunch first, save ourselves the bother of packing it.”
Someone went out to buy a disposable grill, then Ma remembered she didn’t have any more hot dog buns. Eventually, we ate, packed up, changed some of the kids, and headed for the park. It was around 3 p.m.
“Never mind,” said Ma brightly — she and Tatty decided to come along, for the nachas. “We’ll play for a couple of hours, and then do the barbecue for supper.”
The kids were having a great time, chasing each other, swinging, and sliding. I wondered how Yoni and Shira were enjoying the circus, then I firmly put them out of my mind. We were having a good time. Who cared what other people were doing?
And it was good, it really was. The men grilled the hot dogs to perfection, by some miracle the succah was emptying out just when we were ready to eat, we organized a big game of ball between the cousins, and eventually packed up for the evening. It was late, but who cared? What were Chol Hamoed mornings for if not sleeping in, as Chani pointed out?
But when I got up the next morning, I found Baila waiting for me, a frown on her face.
“Mommy, Avigail went to a circus yesterday,” she whined.
“And we went to the park.” I pulled some challah out the freezer. French toast for breakfast today.
“We never do anything fun!” my daughter wailed.
I pressed my lips together. If not for Shira, my kids would have been perfectly happy with the park. Why did she always have to do everything differently, leaving us feeling inferior?
If I could tell Shira one thing, it would be:
We would love to be closer with you, but it’s too hard to extend warmth and closeness when we constantly feel judged for the way we do things.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 781)
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